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How America sold its soul in the 'Age of Betrayal'

Beatty offers an angry look at the corporate greed and racism of post-Civil War America.

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In the years after the Civil War, the United States quickly became an industrialized nation. In the process, corporations prospered, the rich became richer, and the majority of Americans – including recently freed slaves – struggled to hold their own.

But everywhere one looked, big industries and the rich were ascendant and government was their handmaiden. Or, as President Rutherford Hayes said privately, "This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government by the corporations, of the corporations, and for the corporations."

Why and how this happened is the subject of Jack Beatty's powerful new book Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865 – 1900. It is an angry book that paints an ugly picture of the times: racism, corporate greed, corrupt government, conspicuous consumption, and violent labor disputes. Despite the huge number of complex issues raised in the book, the central theme is simple. In Beatty's words: "This book tells the saddest story: How having redeemed democracy in the Civil War, America betrayed it in the Gilded Age."

The two overarching themes are railroads and race. In the second half of the 19th century, railroads spread across the US like wildfire. Given their modest role today, it is hard to appreciate the extent to which railroads had both "annihilated space" and knit the continent together.

So great was their influence that it was the railroads – not the federal government – that established US time zones. Government aided the growth of railroads by giving them huge land grants – more than 150 million acres – that they sold to build their lines. In the process, insiders and politicians both made fortunes.

Beatty describes this largely by focusing on Tom Scott, who built the Pennsylvania Railroad into a colossus and demonstrated a special gift for "winkling favors out of politicians" with handsome bribes. Yet as the railroads grew and their profits increased, he cut the wages paid to his employees. When the workers organized a strike in protest, Scott used political connections to crush them with federal troops.

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